Justin Bieber Reveals Will Smith Counsels Him Weekly in Rare, Raw Interview
This story first appeared in the Nov. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
If you're a 19-year-old pop star who wants to be seen as an adult artist, it probably is not the best idea to show up to a photo shoot in a onesie. Yet here is Justin Bieber, draped head to toe in a cherry-red jumper whose only point of entry and exit is a blindingly bright white zipper that stretches from his chest to, well, you know …
The bold getup has a hint of hip-hop when accessorized with attitude, of which the teen possesses plenty. "I'm very influenced by black culture, but I don't think of it as black or white," he says. "It's not me trying to act or pose in a certain way. It's a lifestyle -- like a suaveness or a swag, per se. But I don't really like to say the word ['swag'] anymore. It's kind of played out."
Despite such pronounced braggadocio -- accentuated physically by the presence of two burly bodyguards -- Bieber can't help but give off more of a Ken-doll-with-a-six-pack vibe than a Beastie Boy one. Even his posse on this day is surprisingly vanilla, as opposed to the bad-boy troublemakers with whom Bieber often is associated, at least in the headlines. Rapper Lil Twist, who totaled Bieber's $230,000 Ferrari in January and invited unwanted scrutiny when a girl claimed she was assaulted by him at Bieber's Calabasas, Calif., house? Not on this guest list. Bieber's 32-year-old manager, Scooter Braun, made sure of it when he excised the negative influences from his client's social circle back in August. (Twist recently fired back on Twitter, accusing Braun and crew of putting "false information out to help their side stay squeaky clean.") Neither is Odd Future's Tyler the Creator, another fender-bender-prone rapper, or Lil Za, a regular on Bieber's Instagram account, which boasts 11 million followers.
No, the buds accompanying Bieber to this THR cover photo shoot in L.A. include Pastor Judah Smith of Seattle's nondenominational City Church, an adviser who texts Bieber daily with a scripture chosen specifically for the singer (Smith met the teen and his mother, Pattie Mallette, at a 2010 sermon); former minder-turned-stylist-turned-close friend Ryan Good; and mild-mannered DJ Tay James, who always is just an arm's length away from Bieber's Macbook, which contains a slew of music still in progress.
It's James who cues a future track from the #MusicMonday series, an innovative rollout campaign conceived by Bieber and Braun in which a new song, with lyrics derived from Bieber's personal journal entries, is released every Monday leading up to the Christmas Day premiere of Believe, the pop star's second concert documentary, distributed by Open Road Films.
Titled "PYD," an acronym for "put you down" -- Bieber is referring to the literal motion (perhaps involving a mattress or couch), not the euphemism for insult or euthanasia -- it's a sexy, R&B slow jam featuring R. Kelly that's about as far from the G-rated chorus of 2010's "Baby" as he can get away with. With seven #MusicMonday tracks released so far (six have hit No. 1 on iTunes in the U.S.), "PYD" will follow the urban-flavored bummer "Bad Day" and the lovelorn "All That Matters," the latter of which, believed to be about ex Selena Gomez, includes the lyric, "What's a king bed without a queen?"
Bieber is hoping -- OK, practically begging -- that you'll notice he's graduated from YouTube phenom and sugary-sweet teen sensation to heavily tattooed bad boy and R&B groovemaster. But taking the leap to musical adulthood can be a tough gap to bridge -- especially when facing a skeptical public. As producer Rodney Jerkins, who has worked with the singer for four years, says: "It's very hard. You have to find that perfect sound that captivates your younger audience and the fans that have grown up with you. He's finding himself musically. It's a natural progression, and his is working smoothly. Now that he's older, he's been in and out of love, been around the world, he's seen different things. He's not forcing it, but he knows what he wants. He has a voice now."
And Bieber is using that voice, telling THR in his first interview in nine months that sometimes you just have to say, "I don't give a f---." Elaborates Bieber: "Not 'I don't give a f---' to just be reckless and do whatever, but 'I don't give a f--- what they say.' … I know who I am and what I'm doing in my life and what I've accomplished and continue to accomplish as a performer, as a writer, as an artist, as a person, as a human being. I'm happy with the man I'm becoming."
It's clear the singer is on the defensive. And who could blame him? In the days following the Oct. 18 shoot, Bieber-behaving-badly news alerts blast across the Internet. Among his headline-grabbing debauchery: sneaking out of a Brazilian brothel covered in a white sheet (Bieber's rep never officially commented, but a source says Bieber "had no idea" the members-only club offered sex for sale) and illegally tagging a hotel wall Nov. 7. (Of the latter, Antonio Ricardo Nunes, chief of the Rio de Janeiro 15th Police District of Gevea, tells THR, "Justin had authorization granted by the city to tag in two other places where it was allowed, however he freely decided to tag on the walls of the abandoned Hotel Nacional," a crime punishable by up to "one year in jail or a fine.")
"He's the only person in humanity who's grown up the way he has -- with smartphones and cameras on him 24/7," says Braun. "Another kid can go out and have a good night on the town, and no one gives a crap, but Justin is the most Googled person on the planet -- for four years straight!"
So what's precipitating these shenanigans? "I think his moments of anger come from his resentment towards the ridicule [and] of being judged for things, which a lot of times he hasn't even done," says Braun. Spitting on his fans (as he did from a Toronto hotel balcony in July)? "Justin was playing the loogie game with his friends over the freaking porch! They put two separate pictures together, implied something, and the whole world ran with it." Desecrating a photo of Bill Clinton as caught on tape during the mop-bucket fiasco? "The moment it came out, Justin called Bill Clinton to say, 'I made a dumb mistake.' " Disrespecting the Argentinian flag? "I'm so sorry, and I hope you can forgive this mistake," tweeted Bieber after video surfaced of him using his shoes and a microphone to sweep two flags offstage in Buenos Aires.
And don't even get Braun started on the Anne Frank House visit-turned-international incident April 12, when Bieber was chastised for writing in the Amsterdam museum's guest book, "Hopefully [Anne] would have been a Belieber."
"At the end [of the museum tour], he felt very connected to [Anne]," says Braun, whose grandmother survived Auschwitz. "They had just showed him the pictures of movie stars in her room, and they said: 'Maybe you would have been on that wall, Justin. She might have been a fan of yours.' And he was touched by that."
The steady stream of gossip and scandal comes at a curious time for Bieber and Braun, who are looking to sell a movie that reveals a very different Justin Bieber from Never Say Never, the superstar's 2011 concert doc. Directed by Jon Chu (G.I. Joe, Step Up 3D), the first film told an uplifting tale of a talented kid -- the only son of a born-again Christian single mom -- from the tiny Canadian town of Stratford, Ontario, who's discovered on YouTube by an equally ambitious music industry up-and-comer (Braun), brought to the U.S. for pop-star boot camp and, after impressing Usher one night outside of an Atlanta recording studio, signed to a contract with the award-winning R&B singer and, in due haste, a major label deal. It grossed $73 million in domestic box office. Subsequent similar theatrical attempts by Katy Perry ($25.3 million for 2012's Part of Me) and One Direction ($28.8 million for 2013's This Is Us) paled in comparison.
Self-financed with a budget of $4 million in a strategy modeled after Kevin Hart's independently released, $32 million-grossing Let Me Explain, Believe originally was slated for a summer premiere. But after filming full concerts in Miami, Bieber, Braun and Chu, back for another round, put the breaks on the plan when they realized that a similarly styled sequel only could come across as saccharine. Instead, they chose to embrace some (though not all) of the controversy in the superstar's evolution.
The PG-rated doc, which clocks in at just over 90 minutes, shows a particularly vulnerable Bieber -- still reeling from a nasty run-in with the paparazzi in March (Bieber lunged at a group of photographers outside his London hotel), a crushing breakup with longtime girlfriend Gomez (asked if the heartthrob ever has had his heart broken, Bieber drops his guard to answer a surprisingly intimate "yes") and the death of Bieber superfan Avalanna Routh of cancer at age 6, which shook him to the core. In the movie, an emotionally spent Bieber is shown in tears as he realizes the new meaning attributed to his ladies' night anthem, "One Less Lonely Girl."
Chu views his movie as an illumination of the unreality of Bieber's life: "What's compelling is to see Justin not as an object for us to judge, to harp on and destroy but somebody whom we have responsibility for because we ultimately put him there. We click on those links. We fuel that fire."
Bieber's antics aren't just attracting the attention of gossip websites and tabloids. His well-worn trajectory of child star-turned-possible-train wreck has at least some in Hollywood concerned. Oprah Winfrey, Adam Levine and Mark Wahlberg each have reached out to Bieber via calls and emails to Braun. Rita Wilson offered to have husband Tom Hanks counsel the young star.
Always first to react to a TMZ Bieber headline? Drake. "He'll text me, like, 'What the hell is going with this? I'm pissed. I'm calling him right now. I'm about to go in on him,' " reveals Braun. "Drake is like a big brother to Justin. And Justin really looks up to Drake. They have an extremely special relationship."
But the most present mentor is Will Smith. Braun tells of a particularly tough time for Bieber around the time he returned from his world tour in May that prompted the movie star to drive to Bieber's house and pull him out of bed for a three-hour talk. Bieber's reaction, according to Braun: "He said, 'Man, that makes me feel so loved. I woke up, and there's Will Smith, one of, if not the, biggest movie stars on the planet. He took time out of his day for me.' "
Now, Bieber and Smith have a weekly call to go over any potential issues, emotional or otherwise. (Scientology has never been discussed.) At the same time, Braun adds of Smith, "He's telling me: 'Justin's got to go through it. You can't stop him from going through it. That's youth in itself. He's a young man who's growing up, and that's what makes him interesting and relatable. Otherwise, he'd be some kind of weird robot."
If the Bieber brand is taking a beating right now, it might not entirely be a bad thing. A cynic might wonder how much of this is orchestrated, or at least happy coincidence, in the necessary transition required to turn a teenybopper star (he has appeared on every cover of tween magazines Bop and Tiger Beat in 2013 so far -- 25 in total) into an adult superstar. In fact, there are those who say the scandals actually might have "elongated" his career, as one Bieber source tells THR, adding that sometimes "it's better to slow-burn than to burn out completely."
It's the age-old story, a mythic, potentially dangerous path traversed by the likes of Chris Brown, who, before putting Rihanna into a hospital and rapping on the hard-edged 2011 hit "Look at Me Now," was considered a clean-cut mama's boy (and even now is seemingly absolved of his offenses); Justin Timberlake, who segued from 'N Sync fame for a solo career and Grammys with the help of "SexyBack" producer Timbaland; and even Miley Cyrus, who traded in her Disney card for a try at hip-hop cred with racy performances and her latest album, Bangerz. But for every successful transition, there are 10 more artists whose careers fizzled once out of their teens. The Jonas Brothers, who just called it quits, might still be fresh in your mind, but how about former heartthrob Jesse McCartney or sister duo Aly and AJ? All might have benefited from a scandal or two.
To hear Braun tell it, Bieber is all too aware of the showbiz burnout tale, chronicled in any number of VH1 Behind the Music episodes -- ambitious kid makes it big, rebels, spirals out of control, breaks down (see: Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Bynes). It's one reason why Bieber and Braun have opted for silence.
"The rumors were coming so fast and furious that we couldn't address all of them," says Braun of their decision to throw up their hands. "Say whatever the f--- you want. Justin's not going to go crazy. He's not going to end up in rehab. He's not going to end up a statistic. Nine months ago, they said he lost his mind -- he hasn't missed a show since. So we're just going to shut up." (Bieber called off his Nov. 10 stop at Buenos Aires' River Plate stadium an hour into the concert, telling the crowd he wasn't feeling well; food poisoning was to blame.)
Pastor Smith, who has maintained a steady presence in Bieber's life, traveling as far as South Africa and Australia to help him "not get discouraged or despondent because of perceived failures," sees the pop star as misunderstood. "I don't envy the scrutiny that he carries," says Smith. "He lives a very blessed life, but with those blessings comes a lot of responsibility and expectations from people. Justin is digging deep and discovering. … But he's an extraordinarily compassionate, considerate, loving person who's very loyal and committed to the people in his world. I wish more people saw that side of him."
Bieber's refuge from the gaggle of paparazzi who shadow him daily -- six are assigned to Bieber-watch in L.A. -- is a 10,000-square-foot house in the gated community of Calabasas' The Oaks (incidentally, Spears' former home). There, in The Estates subdivision, described by a neighbor as an enclave of "50 really big custom homes," he has built a recording studio so that he can avoid having to drive to Hollywood. "It's easier to have everyone come to me," he says with resignation.
Bieber has had his share of incidents from behind the gates -- he's been cited for speeding multiple times (though, defends a neighbor, "All these rich kids, you give a 16-year-old a BMW or a Benz, and that's what they do"), openly smoking pot and hosting loud parties. And he'd likely be the first to admit that he's walled himself off to the world after being burned one too many times by hangers-on who sell him out for a quick buck. The video of him peeing into the mop bucket netted a "so-called friend $40,000 10 months later," snaps Braun. Then there are the photographers, whose sole aim is to get a rise out of Bieber, and the media, who, in Bieber's mind, is hell-bent on tearing him down.
Says Bieber: "When people see a negative thing about me on a magazine, they're gonna buy it. Every time some site writes something bad, all my followers go on there, and it brings them more traffic. Now they have all the Beliebers on their site, which gives them money from advertisers. They're just worried about money. They don't care about ruining someone's name."
In that sense, things haven't changed all that much since the boy band craze of the '90s. "Every aspect of you is a potential to make money," says singer Taylor Hanson, who, at age 13 in 1996, was already a multiplatinum artist. "When our first record came out, entire magazines were dedicated just to Hanson." Managing that "power of commodity," he adds, "is an intense and daunting dynamic; you have to choose your battles carefully."
Of course, Hanson came to prominence at a time when hyper-celebrity didn't yet exist -- the omnipotence of YouTube a good decade away. And even at its height, the group likely would have struggled to reach Bieber's clout of 46.6 million Twitter followers and 57 million Facebook likes.
Bieber, whose net worth is estimated by Forbes to be $130 million, also has surpassed his predecessors in using his influence outside of the music sphere -- no doubt steered by Braun -- by donating about $13 million to charity (included in that total: one dollar from every ticket sold for two world tours) and investing his earnings in high-tech companies like Spotify and the iPhone app Stamped.
Braun, too, has jumped headfirst into forays like tech, creating a reported $120 million investment fund with Drake, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Shania Twain manager Jason Owen and former Lady Gaga manager Troy Carter. A multimillionaire who boasts an 8,000-square-foot glass-walled property in the Hollywood Hills and is in the market for a New York City pied-a-terre (Brooklyn: not an option), Braun has built his business into a 26-staff operation that's quickly outgrowing its Beverly Hills office. He counts more than 10 clients these days, including The Wanted, pop newcomer Ariana Grande (who scored a No. 1 album with her August debut, Yours Truly) and K-Pop sensation Psy, and has become among the music industry's most-talked-about players, amassing more than 3.3 million Twitter followers.
You'd be hard-pressed to find many music insiders who openly would disparage Braun as most find themselves charmed by the Greenwich, Conn., native -- who made his name as a party promoter while attending Atlanta's Emory University (he didn't graduate), then moved on to a marketing position at Jermaine Dupri's So So Def Records -- or in business with him. One such peer, who wished to remain anonymous on the chance of future work with Braun, vocalizes what many in the industry secretly think: that "there's something inherently wrong with a manager who wants to be as famous as his artist."
Indeed, you'd have to go back to the days of David Geffen, label head and former manager of Joni Mitchell, The Eagles and Cher, for the last time a music executive had recognition not just beyond the biz but on such a global scale. Not coincidentally, Geffen happens to be Braun's idol, and the 2000 book The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys, and Sells the New Hollywood, an unauthorized account of the mogul's heady days, is Braun's bible, as it were.
Speaking to THR.com in 2010, Braun described Geffen (along with Katzenberg, Richard Branson, Barry Diller and Steven Spielberg) as one of his "heroes" but warned of the less honorable executives working in the industry. "It doesn't matter if you're in the music business, the dental business or movies, you're going to have great people and bullshit people."
You hope to work with the former, but in Bieber's case, he often is dealing with the latter. Through "just living," Bieber says he's learned "you shouldn't trust anybody." With few exceptions: "I trust my mom and dad. I trust Scooter with my career; he's always made sure I'm taken care of." Bieber pauses, then adds, "That's it."
"I was going for a modern Boyz II Men sound," says Bieber, back at the photo studio cueing up "PYD" for the fourth time. In a moment, he'll hop from the makeup chair to sing a sweet falsetto and practice some moves along to his music while checking himself out in the mirror. "I'm really influenced by R&B, but I love everybody -- from Michael Jackson to The Beatles to, like, Led Zeppelin and Korn."
For his age, Bieber surprisingly is well versed in the sounds that came before him. "Michael Jackson didn't do Off the Wall until he was about 23," he says of the King of Pop's breakout 1979 solo album. "Bad, not until he was, like, 25 [Jackson was 29]. I have all the time in the world," he declares of his future seminal third album. Braun completes the thought: "Justin's Thriller is yet to come."
Nothing would make Bieber's label, Island Records, happier than to see him clear that hurdle. Although he has sold 10.5 million albums, including full-lengths My World (2010) and Believe (2012), along with 29.4 million songs, according to Nielsen SoundScan, a truly massive radio single has eluded Bieber, as have Grammys and the coveted crossover hit.
Still, the label clearly has faith in its star, allowing him to take the unconventional approach that is his #MusicMonday series. "It's unorthodox, yes," says Steve Bartels, president/COO of Island Def Jam Music Group. "But Justin isn't afraid of taking chances. He's incredibly bright, and when he's on a creative jag or a bent, we try to support him as much as possible."
Bartels was present the day in 2007 when Usher and Braun paraded Bieber into then-chairman L.A. Reid's New York office. "You knew he was a star," says the veteran exec. "I was intrigued by his musical acumen -- being able to play the guitar and the drums and to vocalize as well as he does at such a young age." But the moment that clinched it for Bartels came on the day of Bieber's signing. Asked to perform for the label staff, Bieber "literally jumped up on the conference room table and broke into 'One Time,' which would be his first single," recalls Bartels. "Everyone was blown away by this 12-year-old kid. It was this magical moment."
When Braun brought Bieber to Atlanta to record his first album, he says he took the responsibility of watching over a then-13-year-old very seriously. "I changed my lifestyle because I had to be a role model," he says. "When Justin was younger, it was, 'Keep him out of trouble, stop him from falling down, protect him as much as you can from anything that can hurt him.' " Today, Braun admits it's a different dynamic. "When I try to do that now, he's resentful, he pushes away and rebels," says Braun. "What I've come to learn is: Be there, give the best advice you can, but he has to be allowed to make his own decisions -- and his own mistakes."
It was a lesson learned the hard way for Bieber and Braun as the two found themselves increasingly at odds with each other over the past year. "I saw the rebellion, I saw our relationship being hurt," says Braun. "We were struggling in talking to each other because I wasn't having conversations about anything good anymore. It was constantly calling to say, 'No!' "
Bieber doesn't disagree. "It's like how a parent sees their kid," he says. (Dad Jeremy Bieber remains in the picture, but less so than mom Mallette, who lives down the road from her son; Bieber has a roommate.) "Scooter was like the father figure in my life. But when I started to grow up, it was hard for him to have to listen to my input. I want to be me, to show everybody who I am as an individual. I don't want to just be a puppet."
At the same time, Braun has gotten heat for what many see as being an enabler. Says the industry insider, "When you're constantly telling your teen artist what a genius they are and saying yes to everything they ask, it ultimately harms them." Fittingly enough: One of the most off-the-cuff and real scenes in Believe involves director Chu asking Bieber if, now that he's over 18, people have told him "no." The teen pauses for a minute to think, then answers with a smile: "No," as the room explodes in laughter.
"I'm usually up pretty much all night until I know Justin is in," says Braun of a routine that might sound familiar to parents. "At night is when trouble can come." Typically, Braun will receive an all-clear text or call from Bieber's body guard or tour manager, and that's when he can get some shut-eye. … Until Bieber rings. "The person who usually wakes me up is Justin," he says. "He likes to talk to me in the middle of the night. Because that's when the world goes quiet for him and his mind's running."
Braun insists he doesn't dread the morning news, but is "prepared for what may come." It's a skill he's honed all too well after seven years of managing Bieber, during which, Braun points out, outside of spending time with Gomez, Bieber was surrounded by adults. "He wants time to be a kid to hang out with people his own age, and be an idiot at times."
Of course, when you have the world's eyes on you, that can complicate your nights out. When Bieber is photographed shirtless at a club, for example, it's construed as a macho, douchey move. "Bring it back to the Marky Mark days, was he ever wearing a f---in' shirt?," Bieber says with a laugh. "I just don't like shirts!"
But mention borderline pornographic fare like Rihanna's "Rated R" video or the butt-nakedness of Miley Cyrus in "Wrecking Ball" and Bieber is more cautious with his words (perhaps because he considers Cyrus his "homie," her perceived dis in Rolling Stone -- where she commented that he was having a hard time "transitioning" to adulthood -- long forgiven).
Does he see an inherent disadvantage in being a male artist striving to be the perfect boyfriend in song when the likes of Taylor Swift and Cyrus can serve up kiss-off numbers that stop just short of the middle finger? Bieber pauses to consider. "That's not what I represent," he says. "What I represent is positivity and brightness and lightness and amazingness. Nothing negative at all."
Still, negativity surrounds Bieber in a dramatically different way than, say, Cyrus who seems so much more in control of her controversies -- and successfully uses her scandals to push product, be it albums or concert tickets. To that end, Bieber, who says he finds the music business "necessary," insists he has a clear vision and is letting the music "speak for itself," along with the unconventional marketing. "People can get taken advantage of in the music industry, but then we can also take advantage of the music industry," he says. "That's what me and Scooter are doing."
"That line could be in a Jay Z song," adds Braun. "Like, when Jay Z said, 'I'm not a businessman, I'm a business, man.' That's the equivalent of what you just said."
A silence descends on the room as all present consider the weight of the statement.
Finally, Bieber speaks. "But it's true. I'm just saying the truth."
[Editor's note: References to Eminem and Paul Rosenberg were removed from this story.]
Additional reporting by Paula Zulian in Brazil
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